Red Flags When Buying A Used Car
August 7, 2021
As an enthusiast, buying a new project car or daily is super rewarding and exciting—you've finally saved up enough benjamins to get into a new platform and are already thinking about the mods you want to do.
Well, before you go balls to the wall and go look at the first car you find on Facebook marketplace (who really uses Craigslist anymore?), there are a few red flags you should be aware of first.
To preface, I geared this guide towards used enthusiast cars and anything remotely sporty, although many of these red flags apply to any used car.
So, this guide is broken down into project cars, sports cars, and Subarus—yes, Subaru's get their own section.
Buckle up, baby.
Project Car Red Flags
So, you want to buy a project car.
Well, buying someone else's unfinished project car OR buying something a little ratty that just needs a little lovin' is almost always going to be risky business.
If you're buying someone else's unfinished project car, make sure you consider why it's unfinished.
Did the seller really get sick of working on it? Or did they mess something up, and it's toast?
The thing is, it doesn't add up when someone says, "it just needs a tune" or "it just needs a fuel pump" after dumping thousands upon thousands of dollars into a project car that originally cost them $2K.
This is a huge red flag, so be skeptical.
This leads me to the task of asking the right questions as a buyer.
If you're buying a project car, make sure you're asking the right questions about where the project is currently at, what is going wrong with the car, and what else it needs.
If the car is not running healthy when you go take a look at it or read the listing, try to dive into what is causing the issue.
Are there problems with the cooling system?
If it's boosted, are their leaks or other problems there?
It may sound obvious, but make sure you ask all of these questions.
When it comes to that little orange light on the dash, expect to see one, but don't let this scare you away yet.
As enthusiasts with modified cars, the check engine light is always just...there.
Once you start messing with things in the engine bay and deleting this or adding that, the engine light is bound to come on and stick around.
If you notice the check engine light is on in the project car you're looking to buy, assess what you've already learned about the car and ask if there's anything else that's causing the engine light.
Sports Car Red Flags
So, you want to buy a used sports car? Maybe it's a Miata or an S2000 (once they're not stupid expensive—thanks 2021), or a standard trim muscle car.
Well, here's a few things to look out for before picking one up.
Again, the process of buying a used sports car is very similar to the project car.
First, you need to ask the right questions.
- How many owners has the car had?
- Do you have maintenance records?
- When was the oil, brakes, other fluids, clutch (if manual), etc., replaced/checked?
- When was the car last aligned?
- How much tread is left on the tires?
- What was the car used for? Daily driving? The occasional track day? Highway?
- Was the car ever in an accident?
If the owner doesn't have much of an answer to these questions, this is a huge red flag.
And if you're buying a car from a fellow enthusiast and they do their own work, you'll be able to gauge whether they actually know what they're doing or not pretty quickly.
If they do their own work, they won't have a paper record of maintenance, but that's when you use your judgment and inspect the car to make a decision.
As far as the exterior goes, check for dents and scratches and make sure that all the doors, hood, and truck shut properly.
If a trunk doesn't close right, this may indicate that the car was in an accident.
This may sound obvious, but make sure you test drive the car too.
If the seller doesn't want you to test drive it, this is another huge red flag.
Once you do test-drive the car, test everything to make sure it works.
Don't be afraid to give 'er the beans a lil bit too.
If the seller becomes pushy or you notice that the price on the listing drops dramatically, I'd be concerned. Weird price fluctuations could mean something happened with the engine or they messed something up and need to get rid of it soon.
Subaru Red Flags
Subarus, specifically the WRX and STI, get their own section because they're notoriously prone to engine issues and yet are among the most popular platforms in the enthusiast community. Rightfully so because their chassis handles incredibly well and they're good-looking cars.
Specific red flags to look out for when it comes to Subarus are oil leaks / burning oil issues + coolant leaks. Basically, look for any sort of fluid leaks from the car.
Also, pay attention to what kind of photos the seller puts in the ad.
If they don't show the engine, that's a huge red flag. Engine pictures are a must; otherwise, everyone assumes there's something they're trying to hide.
The best advice one could give to those buying a Subaru is; find one that's as stock as possible.
Stock is much less of a headache and a potential liability.
But, if you find a Subaru that is modified, figure out just how modified it is.
Look for an exhaust, intake, downpipe, blowoff valve, intercooler, other turbo upgrades, an accessport, short shifter, etc., and then ask about the tune.
Subarus have a known issue with blowing head gaskets (hence the oil leak/burning red flag to look for), so if the engine is built, ask for maintenance records if they have them and ask if/when they replaced the head gasket.
This is obviously a very pricey thing to have replaced since they require so much labor, so a lot of people will just sell the car instead of paying the $500-$1K+ to replace the head gasket.
General Red Flags
Here are some general red flags to look for when buying any used enthusiast car.
"It just needs a tune."
If the seller tells you this or says, "It just needs X," run.
We've all heard it or even said it ourselves when selling our old cars; "It burns a little oil," "It just needs a fuel pump," etc.
While some of these may genuinely be true for some used cars, more than likely, it needs more than just X—it'll also need Y and Z and a new engine and a new frame; you know, "little" stuff.
Now, let's say that this is a project car you're looking at.
If the seller says something along those lines and you walked into this potential purchase knowing it needed some hardcore lovin', then this may be totally acceptable for you.
If you're willing and able to put the time, money, and bloody knuckles into a project car like this, go for it.
Chances are, you also have the resources and tools to fix it up the right way.
"No low ballers. Serious buyers only. I know what I have."
Personally, this is one of my favorites.
We've all seen used car ads with this note at the end, along with the clever memes.
If you haven't, you're missing out because it's actually quite comical.
If you're peeking at an enthusiast car and know anything about anything, this statement should definitely be a red flag.
No, your base model Civic with an exhaust or rusted-out sports coupe isn't that special (no hate on Civics).
So, this could mean a few things.
One, the owner probably didn't take great care of the car in the first place if they feel the need to include that note.
Two, the seller is going to be difficult to work with.
Three, the car is going to have a lot of problems, and that note is just a nice coverup/distraction.
"Slight rust underneath the car."
After a few car-buying experiences, you learn always to question people—this is one of those times.
If the car is old and has resided in a state with a real winter, don't take the seller's word on this.
Don't be afraid to as if you can, jack that sucker up and take a peek underneath to see how bad the rust really is.
You may find out that there isn't much rust, just like the seller said, and that's sick, but always check.
Buying a used car is super exciting but can sometimes come back to bite you in the a** if you overlook some of these red flags.
Some of the best advice for looking at used cars is...
- If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
- Always check under the hood and underneath the car.
- The only power you have in a deal like this is the power to walk away.
- Don't be afraid to ask questions. Make sure you ask the right questions. The more, the better.
- For enthusiast cars, look up common issues with those cars BEFORE looking at it, so you can ask the right questions.
- Make sure the car has a clean title and hasn't been in an accident.
- ALWAYS pull a Carfax report or something of the sort.
- Look up the VIN too.
- Don't settle unless you like wasting money. And don't rush into a good car.
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If you've ever had a sketchy car buying experience, let us know! I want all the juicy details.
What red flags do you look for when buying a used car?